Friday, August 17, 2012

Howard R. Garis: Newspapers' other 15,000 Story Man

On January 10, 1910, Howard R. Garis, a writer of some note already, began contributing a daily story to the Newark News. Initially the stories featured the adventures of a family of rabbits, the Littletails, and their muskrat servant, Jane Fuzzy-wuzzy, but soon the stories began to focus on their wise old uncle, Wiggily Longears. According to a column by Nat Bodian, Garis would write over 15,000 of these stories by the time he retired in 1947. (The accounting here seems a little off, given it took Burgess ten more years to reach the number, so the much quoted 15,000 Garis stories must include non-Wiggily stories as well).

The first month or so of stories was collected and published as Sammie and Susie Littletail and syndicated to other newspapers to run as daily bedtime stories. The book is worth skimming through, particularly the early chapters, which are located in a relatively naturalistic milieu. The Littletails live in a burrow (note: cottontails, unlike European rabbits, do not typically live underground) and have dangerous run-ins with traps (Sammie gets caught), hunters with guns (Uncle Wiggily gets shot), and boys looking for animal skins. By the end of the book, however, the stories are deep into fairyland. Fantasy rather than natural history would be the normal Uncle Wiggily mode for most of the rest of its run.

Let's look at the experience of a particular paper. The Washington Times began running the Garis stories under the "Bedtime Stories" header beginning on August 1, 1910 (it replaced Farmer Smith's "Daddy's Good Night Story"). Here's the first story (identical to the first chapter in the book linked to above).
The Garis stories did not necessarily run on consecutive days. Some issues, such as the August 4, 1910 Times, featured a different series, in this case "The Ticklemouse and his Sleepyland Adventures--with Davy and Dorfy"
And while the Times ran the next set of Garis stories, about the squirrels Johnnie and Billie Bushytail, by March of 1911, it seems to have committed to yet another bedtime story series, "The Sandman's Stories, for little folk just before bedtime."
For a un-cropped original go here
It is worth noting that the characters and action of this particular story (the Sandman series was ultimately quite varied in its story-types) are very Burgess-like (especially if you swap the wolf character for a coyote), though clearly the rabbit and the fox have a different relationship than Peter and Reddy.

In his memoirs Thornton Burgess recounts surveying the existing newspaper bedtime stories and finding them lacking. This would motivate the development of his own bedtime story series, which would indeed be superior in certain ways (especially in respect to natural history education) to what was available. At the same time, I think it is also important to reflect on the similarities and even influences that these precursors had on him.

Next: Burgess's earliest newspaper stories for children

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